The interview was conducted over a period of months — from late 2015 to April 2016 — via email, as Eric prepared to shoot his Kickstarter-funded project, 100 Monologues. In which, as advertised, a hundred different actors and artists perform chunks of vintage Bogosian, in front of a camera.
(Fuller disclosure: I was asked to perform a monologue myself. Nearly five pages worth. But, shame-faced, had to take a Pasadena, when I realized that whatever caustic hell-bath in which I’d marinated my brain had left it incapable of retaining anything more taxing than a few old dealers’ phone numbers. [Which, annoyingly, I can’t seem to forget, though they’re all dead.] Humbled, I requested a four-word, mini-monologue: something simple, like “I’m a fucking idiot!” in Bogosianese. But Eric declined to rewrite to my incapacities.)
JERRY STAHL: You’ve done pretty much everything there is to do with words and performance: writing and/or acting in movies, TV, theater, one-man shows … and probably a few genres I’ve missed. Guggenheims, Obies, Pulitzer nods, and a long run as Captain Ross on Law & Order … It’s a long way from performing at the Kitchen in the punk wilds of the Lower East Side. You have the résumé of someone who never stops moving, what Maron would call — as the highest compliment — a “worker.” My question is, in the midst of all this action, what drives you to keep writing books? Your fourth, the nonfiction Operation Nemesis, came out last year. And before that, there were three novels. What do they mean to you?
ERIC BOGOSIAN: Funnily enough, I’ve been thinking about this lately, thinking about books in a general way. Mostly because I have been reading two 20th-century authors: Saroyan and Mann. Both these guys basically dance around the philosophy of life. As I read them (particularly the super-dense Doctor Faustus), I wonder if there will ever be books like this again. Does philosophy of life have a place in public discourse?
I suckled on this stuff when I was in my teens and into college. I couldn’t get enough Hesse, Salinger, Hemingway — all those guys who seriously discussed the meaning of life. I was mesmerized by the notion of “what is life?”, “what’s the point?”, etc. And of course, I was not the only one. We all came up on the same books. But it all seems so sophomoric now. Or old-fashioned — maybe that’s a better word.
I get that … Always wanted to love Saroyan. I get the life-loving idea of him — but always found the books a little “soft.” Or maybe sentimental is a better world.
Saroyan, at his best, was groundbreaking as far as the short story goes. He’s one of the first “personal voice” writers. I can’t claim to have read much of his work. He wrote continuously from his 20s until he died. His popular work can be sugary, but even in his early collection My Name is Aram, there’s a piece called “The Poor and Burning Arab” — try that one on. It’s intense. I’m interested in Saroyan as a man who was very aware of his public image and was deeply self-destructive. (At the same time, equipped with awesome talents as a writer. Made it look so easy.) Bad gambler. If he had money, he gambled it away. He won the Pulitzer and an Oscar. He died pretty much alone and sick while living in a house crowded with junk.
So Saroyan is interesting in the contrast between his sentimental stories and his actual life.
There is a small book titled Last Rites which Saroyan’s son (Aram, a poet) wrote as Saroyan was dying. Basically it’s an inventory of what a shit his father was. But for some of us, who may take an inventory like this with a grain of salt (after hearing all my friends complain about their parents), reading the book was an intense exercise. The parent as bad person. What deep, deep loam.
The deepest. On the other hand, Hemingway said the best gift you can give a writer is an unhappy childhood. So there’s that. You also mentioned Mann. Nick Tosches is a big Mann fan. But I have to be honest here, I think I read half of Magic Mountain on acid, decided I had TB, and had to quit reading in the ER. I’m guessing Mann wasn’t exactly “Father of the Year” either. Seems like one of those writers you imagine with a jacket and tie on, like Nixon. You don’t picture Thomas Mann paddling to his desk in the morning scratching his ass in his pajamas.
Mann was deeply superstitious. He began writing every morning at 7:00 a.m. and came out of his study at 7:00 p.m. for dinner. He had seven children. He was deeply superstitious. That said, Doctor Faustus was written during World War II and is Mann’s response to Hitler’s reign. Christians begged for philosophy because it makes no sense and people try to live their lives by it …
Anyway, Mann’s books are impossible and like the work of Bernard Shaw, probably not the best examples of the literary form.
For sheer virtuosity, I prefer V. S. Naipaul, another difficult man.
Is it possible to be a great artist and not be a prick?
Are you a prick if you’re ambitious? Ambition is a necessary component of artistry. You have to be willing to push past a certain threshold of pain and the only thing that’s going to force you to do that is existential, (i.e., you exist because you are recognized by the greater world). Ambition does bring out the prick in people. Look, it’s like this: Some people are lucky (that’s me) and they can afford to be less than impossible. Others are unlucky and they give up. Others are unlucky and need to do what needs to be done. I don’t blame anyone.
But my point, originally, was whither philosophy in literature? It’s as if there is an overall consensus now among the reading public that there’s nothing really to think about. Or that the only thoughts to have are facile and pre-thought out. Like that boring Franzen guy.
So you’re not in love with Franzen?
I can’t argue taste. I’ve read two of his books and can’t remember much of them. Lots of words. He has real agility as a writer, but I’m not very clear on what he’s writing about. It’s like Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a book that today is only memorable because it sold so well, it echoed conventional thinking about our state of being in contemporary society.
Conventional genius is the luckiest kind. It’s nonthreatening.
But who’s going to read it today? I’m more interested in things that get me thinking, not things that reinforce my thinking. I like Karl Ove Knausgaard.
You do? I always feel like, if Knausgaard looked more like Paul Giamatti and less like Adderall Fabio, it’d be a whole different ball game. They wouldn’t be sticking his mug on the book covers.
I dunno. It’s about resonance, right? I loved David Foster Wallace, but he was never overt in his philosophy. He meditated on a topic without saying what he was thinking, right?
Wallace wrote the most important American book of the late 20th century. And I can’t explain why I feel that way. Also, by the way, Infinite Jest is an impossible book. Not easy to read. But fortunately, he had a great sense of humor.
I think, on some level, his philosophy is his sense of humor. I mean, come the fuck on, “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment!”
Dumb as it sounds, I wish Jest had been around when I was an up-and-coming degenerate. Nobody has ever written better — or smarter — or darker — about addiction. The real taste, bang, and stank of it. I doubt this was any part of the author’s intent, but baked in there with the skull-exploding observational genius, “I Buried Paul” style, the book has a message or three the right kind of drug-addled, depresso young sensitoid might be able to hear.
You think so? My kids, who are very literate, seem to have little interest in anything that delivers a “message.” They also don’t seem to have much interest in the typical psychological novel, say something like Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or anything by Faulkner. They prefer fantasy and sci-fi, Tolkien and Iain Banks. They prefer genre to what we label “literary.” And I see that all around me. When I was growing up, books and plays were deeply invested in representing social or political “problems” or examine the complexities of the psyche. This sort of work has been crowded out by genre or work that is deeply ironic. In fact, pillars of that type of “literary” writing like Philip Roth, for example, seem old-fashioned compared to the “cool” writing of a David Foster Wallace, for example. The other night, as a kind of memorial for Harper Lee, I watched the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird again. Hadn’t seen it in years. It is typical of that period in that it addresses racial prejudice squarely and directly. And it moved me. Literature and art don’t address the big questions anymore, including an examination of how we live or what our beliefs are. It’s as if we collectively feel that “all that” has been solved and it’s time to “move on.” For example, the problem of racism. We don’t need to examine our personal feelings because we all “know” we’re not racist. What bullshit.
What about graphic novels? Do your kids read them?
I’m not a big graphic novel guy. My son Harry is a graphic novelist and when he was younger, I read them a bit just to keep up with him. But my preference is books, some fiction and mostly nonfiction. And I consider it a privilege to be able to afford hardbound books. (Remaindered hardbound can be cheaper than soft.) That’s my idea of wealth, reading hardbound books. By the way — before I forget — we have to talk about The Wolfpack.
I just watched it. Hard to get out of your brain. Though I feel like there’s a lot of story they didn’t tell. Still — those boys are us, right?
Exactly, Wolfpack feels like an exaggerated version of the way we all live. These boys are completely dependent upon the mass media for their intellectual sustenance. And as a result, they are, to put it bluntly, deformed. I mean they appear to be ill, don’t they? And slightly deranged. They have no lives. They are the extreme example of how we are all losing dimensionality in our lives as we become more and more fixated on what is injected into our gray matter via digital media.
Before the digital injections, there were, for better or worse, books. Which is what we started off talking about. I’m still curious about the ones that shaped you. The ones that, as you put it, taught you how to live.
There were so many. There was Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, anything by Hesse. Does anyone read Steppenwolf today? When I was young, Dickens and Twain infused me with a sense of moral outrage. Nabokov. Roth … All those guys.
Obviously, literature is more than a discourse on values and ways of living. Writers conjure up ways of thinking. My mind works like prose writing. The way ideas are framed, the way I look at my life, whatever it is. There is a romantic undercurrent to all fiction, no matter how gritty. If the author wasn’t a dreamer, he wouldn’t write at all. So even an old nasty like Burroughs or Bukowski, deep down, is a dreamer. The very act of communication with another human being, and doing it with grace, is an act fraught with hopefulness.
I’d have gone with “desperation.” But maybe you have to be desperate to hope. Hubert Selby Jr. used to say he didn’t believe in hope — and somehow he made that sound upbeat.
Many artists are not attractive as “people” — they fall short. Too bad for those close to them. I’ve been around long enough, though, to believe that ambition, fear, craziness, assholedom often produces great art. And I need great art. If I have a friend who’s a dick but at the same time makes great art, I just have to decide whether I want to continue a personal relationship with that person. Sometimes it’s worth it.
For you, as a writer — as a human — what makes it worth it to keep pushing, keep creating?
Let me answer with quote from Jean-Louis Barrault: “When I wake up in the morning I want to feel hungry for life. Desire is what drives me. When I go to sleep, I feel I have experienced a small death, so that I can wake up in the morning renewed and reborn.” Something like that. Barrault’s pantomime (yow, pantomime!!!) in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise, when he’s onstage and planning to kill himself in front of an audience is art. Because he is so there.
I can’t think of a better description of your own performance than the borderline disturbing sense, as an audience member, that you are “so there.” What — if I may ask a civilian question — does that feel like? How does the dynamic, when you’re in it, differ between writing and performance? Do you read your work out loud when you write? Do characters in your plays and characters in your novels speak differently?
I ask because when you’d watch Spalding Gray, say, you would think, “that really is Spalding Gray.” But there’s something else going on in your work — perhaps a facet of you magnified, warped, and reconfigured. Excavated and divvied into characters. Is that, in real life, even close to what the process is like? And is performing different for you now than it was in the early days?
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my solo performances. I don’t really do them anymore, though I am performing this weekend in Dallas. When I say “perform,” these are full-tilt shows similar to what I retired from 15 years ago. The stuff is hard to do. I’m better at it today, but I would really hate doing a seven- or eight-show week now. I’m calmer, I know how to play my material better than I did. The calmness allows me to keep an eye on the whole thing better. I have nothing to prove. I’m just enjoying the moment. But if I had to do it over and over again, I would hate that. To be honest, I hated the seven-show week back when I used to have four month runs. Between 1980 and 2000, I performed something like a thousand times.
When you were starting out in The Kitchen — I’m not going to say “back in the day,” I hate that phrase — did you have any thoughts about philosophy or message? What — looking back on the young you as the older and putatively wiser one — drove you to do what you did?
I remember one day driving around (we were working for The Kitchen) with Robert Longo. We had just met, he had just come to NYC. I said something like, “I don’t want to be famous,” and he laughed at me and said, “Of course you do.” I have reappraised how ambition works in the artist’s life since that time. I didn’t think of myself as ambitious, but in those early days all I thought of, all day long, was my work and how to get it out there. I rationalized my ambition (because I saw ambition as a sin) by thinking of my projects as “my children” which I had to protect. I learned much about promoting my work from Robert in those early years. I’m not sure if it worked or if I am just some sort of idiot savant who landed on his feet. I was ambitious. Even Kafka was ambitious.
My philosophy and message was all I thought about. I considered performance as essentially revolutionary because you couldn’t buy it. (The notion that one could become a celebrity or make money was absolutely absurd given the context, SoHo and the Lower East Side, at the time.) I made shows, as my friends did, and we just did them for our friends in lofts and clubs. The message was “find the outer limits of thinking.” Not so much “be shocking” (because we were not shocked by this sort of stuff), rather “turn the thinking upside down” — which we thought was a good thing. There was a lot of hippie thinking that influenced the punk thinking. I was “punk”, which means this: smart, awkward, dark, energetic, funny. Every generation wants to tear down the last. That’s what we were doing or thought we were doing.
I wanted to take the way we think, through characters, and make galleries, like my artist friends. I wanted the audience to look and see deeply. I wanted to see larger patterns in commonplace thinking. Perhaps all I did was make funny sketches. I think some of my stuff is no deeper than a SNL sketch. But over time, I was able to use these elements of character and humor, to dig into more complex stuff. Talk Radio is a complicated, dense piece. I embrace it as a good reflection of my thinking.
Punk was my religion. Punk was the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and all that. It was ironic, but it wasn’t glib, because it was also grounded in a commitment to a self-destructive lifestyle. Ergo nightclubbing, shooting up drugs, random sex, etc. I was essentially a suburban kid, so I loved the “danger.” We didn’t understand at the time (or didn’t care) that there was real danger.
So, yeah, philosophy was “find the edge” because that’s a good thing. New thinking was a good thing. Antimaterialism, a good thing.
A big influence on the art scene, though, is that most of the people (who survive) in the art/music/theater world come from upper-middle and upper-class families (I don’t). So they are very comfortable when the day comes to shift gears from punk lifestyle to country house living in their late 30s. Having kids. Thinking about legacy. All that. Those artists who stay behind in the slums end up looking like chumps. Guess what? You are a poor person and no one cares. I figured this out, almost too late, when I was in my early 30s. And I tried to “get out,” and couldn’t. I was stuck. Luck intervened (I got sober) and I ended up healthy and financially stable.
But in the end, the art world, the creative world is so influenced by money. We are Americans. It’s our world. In the end, it seems like all the revolutionaries either die or get rich.
Looking back, I don’t think the essential thing is the “message” or the “philosophy,” it’s the making, it’s the embracing. Full commitment to art-making is revolutionary because it is one way to totally live. It is bourgeois. Sure. But what isn’t?
The eternal question.
Right. In the ’70s and early ’80s, I don’t know if what we were doing even had a name. It was a sprawling scene but cohesive as far as personal relations went. The recognizable names from this crowd included people like Ann Magnuson, Robert Longo, Bill T. Jones, Kim Gordon, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Rhys Chatham, and many others. We were all about the same age and hungry for something. Most came from a semi-academic background (we had all gone to college) and found each other in NYC. We liked clubs, art, dance, film, music. We were not particularly interested in theater or literature (but there were many poets) or things going on outside the community. We wanted to take punk energy and attitude and infect the fine arts with it. In the early ’80s, the nascent hip-hop scene flowed in. And then people got famous and things changed.
Which would make as great a first sentence as it would a last one. I wonder if there’s a word for that? But, jumping to the present, can you say how your expectations — and the audience’s — are different from what they were back then? And how — if at all — has the audience for your work changed?
When I started out, I knew who my audience was: my friends, my community downtown. This expanded over the years in leaps and bounds as I got more attention. I can be funny onstage and that attracted an audience that wants “funny.” Perhaps this is why I drifted away. I like being funny, but more than that, I like the energy, the edginess. Iggy Pop is “funny,” but that isn’t why you go to see him.
He’s still relevant — Shoehorned Segue Alert! — which is what I wanted to talk about, in terms of your work — especially the plays and monologues. How has the relevance of theater changed in your lifetime?
Theater goes in and out of relevancy. It was a big deal in the ’70s, and there was some very cool stuff going on then. Nudity on stage had people up in arms. I have had the good fortune to have three of my stage shows (Talk Radio; SubUrbia; Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll) filmed and released theatrically, so there must have been some sense that they were of interest to a mass audience. Culture is about an ongoing conversation between all of us living beings who speak the same language. Members of the same tribe. To that degree, theater is relevant. And just as theater was pronounced “dead” (again) along comes Hamilton. Young people who have not even seen the show (except for on YouTube) are memorizing the lyrics!
Has the internet — the easy access to a platform you had to fight for — made a difference to your work? Or work in general? Jesus, I feel like I just burped up an Amy Goodman hairball. But you know what I mean?
The mass media, whether it is the internet or TV or whatever, does not discriminate between varieties of content. So a funny cat video has the same “weight” as footage of Syrian refugees stuck in hell. In the end, this just evens the whole spectrum out. Those people who are interested in something that isn’t simple distraction, something that requires a level of engagement, will still seek out the “good stuff.”
And to some people, the “good stuff” is cats in a hamper …
As I mentioned earlier, what’s always impressed me is that, no matter what else was going on, you’ve always written novels. An effort, from what I’ve read, that can sometimes go painfully unnoticed — if not outright ignored — by the public at large. With that happy preamble, will you be writing more novels?
Let me answer that one this way. Everything I do has a personal-slash-sensual component. I’m not the only longform writer who confesses to enjoy the actual time writing the book. When I write a novel, I am actively fantasizing — hard. And I dig it. If there’s a place I want to go to, I will go there. It’s true, my books seem to be going unread, but I understand that that partially because my “role” in society is not as prose-writer. I get it. If George Clooney wrote a novel, I don’t know if I would run to read it.
But you can bet you’d hear about it. Maybe he has a cat novel.
Maybe. But I don’t blame anyone for shunning my books. That doesn’t stop me from writing, because I don’t write or act or do anything simply because I want to. I do these things because I have to. They enlarge my engagement with the world. That’s why I wrote Operation Nemesis (a nonfiction history book). That one has been embraced and it was a great experience for me.
I really loved Operation Nemesis. And as I was reading it hit me that, in some weird way, the Armenian Assassins, and the genocidal Turks they pursued, were themselves kind of “Bogosian characters” — but in a whole other historical and social context. Does that seem completely insane — or was there (whether you discovered it before, during, or after the writing) some kind of affinity, or lineage to your other work? Beyond your Armenian roots?
As far as the inside-out aspect of Operation Nemesis, well ... I was brought up thinking about evil done, survival and retribution, so I guess, yeah, I wrote about the Nemesis guys because their actions mesmerize me. I’ve always felt (before I was familiar with the Armenian genocide) that what happened to the Jews during World War II and how non-Jews reacted to their plight posed the greatest conundrum of civilization in our time. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around it. Impossible. (Did I mention that you should see that film Son of Saul?) Would I have the guts to act courageously under similar circumstances? I honestly can’t answer that question.
Given the motivation for the Nemesis guys doing what they did — spoiler alert, they murder their people’s murderers — do you ever think you could be pushed to the point of murder? Do you, under certain circumstances, feel like you could kill?
I believe I could kill. I don’t believe that I am a truly empathetic being. I fear that I only pretend to be. Maybe I am only the ultimate showman, the ultimate narcissist. This is why Saroyan is so interesting to me. He understood what people want. But aside from a handful of people in my life, most people are shadows to me. And if killing were necessary, I could kill.
Having said that, I am so disconnected with my deepest feelings, perhaps I could kill but then be tortured by that forever after.
I always go back to that Beckett line: “There is nothing funnier than unhappiness.” That’s either the bleakest or most life-affirming sentence ever uttered …
Listen, it’s hard to write about undramatic things. A placid life is undramatic. An unhappy life is dramatic. As a theater person, I sometimes wonder about the fact that the Church was philosophically against theater. That the Church understood that theater was not so much about affirmation as it is, using a current term in its broadest sense, “drama.”
When you look at history, it’s the non-vicious, non-murderous behavior that feels like the exception. This — and I may be completely conflating our sensibilities — is one reason I love your writing. You traffic in that truth about, for lack of a better term, humanity.
As the late great comedian Bill Hicks noted many years ago: I watch the evening news every night and it’s all murder and mayhem, I look out my window and there’s nothing going on out there. Crickets. (He said something like that.) Obviously most of what’s going on in the world is calm, unremarkable. And I am fully subscribed to appreciating that. Especially after being on the scene on 9/11 and seeing people jump off the building. Every day of peace is a good day. I have no idea how much of the world is caught up in wrenching chaotic pain. The mass media has a stake in making it seem worse than it is. Clearly it is so bad in places. I’ve always thought that keeping my eyes open was an obligation.
For some reason your reference to mass media, and “making things worse,” makes me think of Donald Trump. Trump seems like a character you could have created. Am I wrong about that?
Not at all. The guy’s a bully. I like looking at bullies because I was bullied when I was a kid. Only one way to deal with a bully: Punch him hard in the face. All these suckers are afraid of him. Big mistake. But that’s because they are exactly what he says they are.
What is consistently more surprising — the “real world,” or the world in your head?
In the end, nothing I have written has surprised me. Usually, the surprising thing is that I “write nasty” and the audience laughs. There’s nothing I have written that I wouldn’t want my boys to read. In my household, we have evolved a dual view of “me”: the “real” me (painfully close to the Larry David character on Curb Your Enthusiasm) and the public “me,” who writes about the dark side. At the end of the day, I think my kids understand that I have ventured into realms that make them very uncomfortable, all as a facet of my un-normalcy, and they choose not to look at that too closely. I think some of it frightens them. (I say “kids,” but they are grown men. Nonetheless, they don’t want to dwell on images of “dad” locked in a room cooking up a spoon of junk.)
I can’t relate to that on any level. But speaking of dads — can you talk about your own parents?
My father, who passed away two years ago, was essentially a very sweet guy deep down who was socially awkward and self-conscious, so he seemed to be perpetually angry. Also, I think that in many ways he felt that he had not had the life he wanted. As a result, in his later years, he focused very much on appreciating my sister and myself. Like Saroyan (and perhaps this is why I find Saroyan so interesting), he presented himself to strangers as an affable, mild-mannered guy. He had a great sense of humor. One on one, he could be very dark. Also because he felt that he had been pushed into a career that was grindingly dull (he was a bookkeeper), he always encouraged me to follow my dreams.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a “momma’s boy.” My mother made me her project from the earliest age, wanting the best for me and having great hopes for me without being exactly sure what that meant. My success in the public arena has pleased her.
But going back to the beginning, I was a difficult kid — I didn’t socialize well when I was young — and she had her hands full. She tried, but I was exhausting. When I was 16, I began to “find” myself and taught myself how to socialize, mainly because I wanted to kiss girls. It was good for about six months. Then I started doing acid and weed and drink. And I regressed. My mom stood by me through thick and thin. Both my parents were/are very loving. Neither went to college and I’m not sure that either one ever had a good sense of what I actually do with my days, but they like the idea I’m frequently on TV and have won awards and made a living.
I’m glad you brought up making a living. I was talking to Nic Pizzolatto a few weeks ago. You know, Nic’s known for True Detective, but before that he wrote an amazing novel, Galveston. And he told me that when the book came out, it kind of hit him — and I’m massively paraphrasing here — that working on and putting out a novel, at this point in the world, was essentially an academic, almost arcane, and not (too) profitable pursuit. And so he made the conscious decision to move into television. Have you wrestled with this kind of choice yourself?
Not really. I write novels because I want to explore the inner dialogue. I want to philosophize. And it is not “arcane” because novelists are still striking chords with an engaged audience. And that’s everywhere. Writing a novel is a huge complex exercise that takes everything I’ve got. And I like that. I’ve written TV and I love TV when it’s great. But in the end, TV is a collaborative exercise. The screenwriter must work with the director and the actors to create the final product. Sometimes the result is satisfying. But you do lose control.
If anybody could patent a “creativity diaper,” screenwriters could wear them to notes meetings — for when they “lose control.”
On that subject, how is the process of writing lines you are going to perform for yourself different from writing for other actors? It would seem like, control-wise, this is the ultimate: writing lines you’re going to deliver the way you want to deliver them.
I’m always writing for myself. When I write dialogue, I try to write speech that would attract an actor. In other words, I write what I would like to perform. I once had to jump into a play I had written (Red Angel) because I couldn’t cast it. Nothing changed.
But theater-wise, I’ll tell you a secret. For me, the equation is pathetically simple: I’m profoundly uncomfortable in “my own skin” and once I found acting, I was able to lose myself in another’s persona. I get to be someone else. It’s like flying. I feel it’s a gift I’ve been given. These days, I am much more comfortable “being myself,” though I still have panicky moments. And this comfort hasn’t seemed to interfere with my capacity to “become” someone else. I read everything I write out loud.
I don’t know, panicky still seems like a sane response. Don’t you think we’re living in dangerous times? Dangerous in a new, more savage way than when you were starting out? How (if at all) does the “world situation” affect your writing and performing?
I guess everything hinges on whether we have any conscience at all. I think we do. If I am right and we do have some kind of genuine empathy, then becoming aware of the horror show out there might make things better. This, of course, is a simplification. The many layers of our society allow us to distance ourselves from responsibility. But real change comes incrementally. My conscience has been sparked by things you, Jerry, have said and written. You in turn have hipped me to writers like Chris Hedges, who in turn hipped me (through his writing) to other socially responsible writers. What goes around comes around. Today, slavery is against the law. Today, women have the vote. These are only two examples of “causes” that writers pushed for, one or two centuries ago, and indeed, change eventually happened.
Then maybe the question is, when (or if) you look back on your work, do you see themes you didn’t realize were there? Do you ever find — and this may be too obvious, especially now — that the problem with writing so-called “dark material” is that reality is inevitably darker?
Dark material, yes … There is no question that undiluted human dark actions are so frightening, no one can assimilate them. There is a scene in that movie two years ago, the one about the Indonesian thugs who tortured their victims and are still in power today — The Act of Killing — in which the guy starts vomiting after describing torturing and killing people. I have been a member of Amnesty International for 40 years. I am well aware of how sick it can get.
I’ve learned recently, perhaps it was while I was reading The Slave Ship (which you gave me), that almost everything I am interested in is super-dark. I’ve also been reading Chris Hedges. Dark, dark, dark. You and I insist on putting a humorous spin on all this. Why? I don’t have an answer.
One possible answer, which I stumbled on while doing a novel about Mengele — and midway through wondering what the fuck I was thinking — is that oppressed people and minorities, any kind of outsiders, have always responded to their situations with humor. Not the most original observation — but I did come across an extreme example. I did a reading at Stories, in Echo Park, with Werner Herzog’s son, Rudolph, who’d done this amazing book of Third Reich Nazi jokes. Real jokes Germans were telling at the time. It’s called Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. (The words “laugh riot” come to mind.) And it kind of is. But you know, wilder than the jokes is the fact that people were making them — at a time when the SS could torture you if they thought your Sieg Heil was phoned in. In the face of this darkness, maybe humor — mockery — was the way to keep from going insane.
I know, right? They didn’t have water coolers at Auschwitz, so you have to imagine, some of these jokes were made standing around the oven … Anyway, what I meant to say, before the side trip, is I’ve seen a ton of your stuff, and there’s one moment — I think it’s from Pounding Nails — where this rich guy sees this scabby homeless beggar every day and germaphobically avoids touching him until the fateful day he gives him a buck, accidentally brushes his hand, then goes on vacation and breaks out in this heinous flesh-eating rash. Aside from still making me laugh, this moment, to me, somehow encapsulates the Eric Bogosian worldview — at once vividly horrifying and weirdly humane.
And thank you for remembering that bit. (It’s called “Rash,” but I think of it as “the barbecue bit.”) I think some fragment of a thought hits me (like jeez, I just gave that guy money and his hand brushed against mine, maybe he has tuberculosis) and run with it. Then I might save that chunk and insert it into a larger scenario, which I think is what happened with “Rash.” It’s a favorite of mine too. Though the guy with the big dick is my overall favorite.
What makes the big dick piece your favorite?
What I love about “Stud” — that’s what it’s called — is that it pretty much says it all. When I wrote it, I was titillated by talking about having a huge organ. And playing with the notion that if you have a huge dick, that pretty much solves everything. But more recently, when I do the piece, I realize that this “huge dick” is a metaphor for any overwhelming material advantage: money, looks, stardom. And the underlying philosophy that if you’ve got that, then you need nothing else, well this is the foundation of our society’s “religion.” Certainly money works like that. It is an anti-transcendental philosophy. This idea that if you have a big dick (or a big bank account) is materialism at its purest. Plus, it’s fun to get in front of an audience and talk about my penis.
Which you can’t just do on a bus anymore. But you get to do it onstage — just one of the perks. Offstage, though, what is your life like? You’ve said you were calmer now. How does that serenity affect productivity — is it easier to work when you’re living as a wild man, or as a sane productive member of society?
That’s actually something I wanted to talk about. I’m not even sure how to put it, but essentially it’s this: I live a very conservative life. Whatever my past involvement with an non-mainstream lifestyle some 30-odd years ago, today my life couldn’t be more unremarkable, especially with regard to my personal habits. I look around me and I see an expensive watch on my wrist, sanded gleaming floors in my loft, meals of organic foods purchased at the local Whole Foods, and a Toyota Highlander in the nearby garage. What in God’s name do I think makes me “different?” Nothing.
And you know what? I don’t have a problem with any of that. What I find disturbing in terms of looking at the sum total of “me” is my abiding interest and mental mastication of the most petty and meaningless topics. There is very little that is high-minded in my thinking these days. My head is filled to the brim with the nonsense that is spewed daily into our collective minds from the multitudes of mass-media outlets. And I’m not vilifying this massive idea-machine. I’m a willing participant in this endless feedback loop of bullshit. The medium is the message, now more than ever. I am just one more consumer of all this shit.
And even when I’m not pondering how much money a star is making or how many people were killed in some horrific mass slaughter or whether I’m eating too much gluten, I’m still not thinking about anything interesting. When I’m not snuffling up the details of some truly disturbing event, I’m just thinking about myself. I confess that I think my mind-stream is distinctive simply because of my endless fascination with myself. Could this be any more decadent?
And this interest in myself really just boils down to judging myself (hand-in-hand with judging others). It’s a habit as interesting as thumb-sucking.
I have always run with a smart-ass crowd. But sometimes I wonder if we confuse “smarts” with negative, censorious thinking. Is there anything “deep” about this degree of self-centeredness?
Perhaps I’m too tough on myself.
But one thing is for sure: I am neither a super-empathetic human being (I do very little for others) and neither am I a cultural rebel. Like most everyone I know of in the arts, most of my energy goes into promulgating and enhancing my “brand.” I wish I could say otherwise, and maybe this confession itself is some sign of “life,” but after our dialogues over the past weeks, I just can’t stop noticing the $400 watch on my wrist.
Jerry Stahl’s nine books include the novels I, Fatty and Pain Killers, and the memoir Permanent Midnight.