Tobias Wolff: “Literature is a theater of choices, values”

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TobiasWolffOver at The Boston Review, Stanford student Quyen Nguyen has a fascinating interview with award-winning author Tobias Wolff on vocation and morality – I kept wanting to yell “right on!” as I was reading it, but as I was alone in my house, the impulse seemed rather silly. (We’ve written about Toby before, here and here and here and here, as well as a zillion other places.)  Read Quyen’s interview over here – meanwhile, a few excerpts below:

TW: There’s a certain kind of book that when I read it, I feel like I have company in the world. I wish I had had, when I was younger, a book like This Boy’s Life to read, to know that there were other kids living the kind of life I lived, this oddball existence. So there is a way in which writing can become a companion for people. It has been for me, and I hope that my work does that for others. There’s no doubt that if you parse out my motives, there’s probably a great deal of pure ambition, vanity, competitiveness, all that sort of thing, which does not mean the effects cannot be positive.

He didn't mean to do it.

He didn’t mean to do it.

You used an expression in your email, “conscience-laundering,” and I thought about that. I don’t want to award a kind of nobility to the decisions I’ve made because they’ve probably, in some way or other, been self-serving. But let’s take the case of somebody like Mozart. He probably didn’t intend to change the world, yet can you imagine the world without that music? Can you imagine the world without Chekhov‘s short stories? …

QN: The phrase “conscience laundering” was taken from Peter Buffet’s article, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” He defined “conscience laundering” as “feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Do motives behind this sort of feel-good charity matter?

TW: If you are talking about a single human being rather than a corporation, I don’t think that it’s possible for a human being to be disinterested. But we have to try, obviously. Have you heard of Joyce Maynard? Joyce Maynard is a novelist. When she was seventeen or eighteen, a freshman at Yale, she wrote a brief memoir in the New York Times Magazine. Precocious, one might think, looking backwards so early. J. D. Salinger read it and wrote her a fan letter. He ended up moving her in with him, persuaded her to give up a scholarship at Yale, used her, discarded her, all with this great theater of purity. He considered himself a very “pure” soul who believed that if you do good, you’re really doing it just to flatter yourself. So he did no good, certainly safe from that sin. You might read a recent Times article by Joyce Maynard, “Was Salinger Too Pure For this World?” in which she writes about this continual exercise, this question of “Is this good thing you’re doing really for yourself?” “Can you escape self-flattery in doing what others would conventionally call a good thing?”

t-s-eliot

“All manner of things shall be well.”

It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.

And I would suggest that if you give food to someone who’s hungry, they don’t give a shit whether you’re doing it for yourself or them. But if Carnegie is working kids at ten cents per hour and then building libraries, well, though the libraries are a good thing we still have to hold him accountable for the exploitation of children.

But it’s a complicated issue and I think we have to live with a little conscience-laundering if that’s what it takes to try to do something that benefits other people. If there’s a sense of self-congratulation for some good we do for others, then we have to live with that. This idea has obviously vexed people forever, this tension between the deed and the motive. In the Four Quartets, Eliot writes, “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” So he’s obviously grilling himself in this way too. I don’t know if it ever goes away.

***

Wolff

“It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.” (Photo: Sonia Lee)

TW: …Mozart, in what way is he useful? In measurable terms, he is not useful. You can’t even say music uplifts or purifies the soul. As we know, the officers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps liked to make the inmates play Beethoven to them and they would weep while the music was being performed. So you can’t even say that music is necessarily transformative, though it can be.

What I do think is that it’s hard for us to live with ourselves if we don’t feel useful in some way or another. Have you seen that movie The Hurt Locker? There’s a guy who disarms bombs, a highly dangerous job. When he comes home, there is a striking scene of him standing in an American super market, looking at this dazzling array of goods, and he just wants to go back to Iraq. He reads about a bomb going off in the newspaper and he thinks, “I could have saved those people.” He has experienced actually being useful. People like him have this rare experience of having their usefulness made dramatically apparent to them, so they keep going back to give support to others even in this violent, terrible context. We all have a hunger for that sensation of usefulness. It’s a little harder to experience that as a writer, maybe a little easier as a teacher. No doubt society and the cultures we grow up in all elicit this need to be useful, but it’s also something that’s hardwired in us. It’s not necessarily a divinely inspired thing, it may well be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s there.

***

QN: We are reading bell hooks’ chapter about “Engaged Pedagogy.” What is your pedagogy?

TW: I certainly wouldn’t keep teaching if it’s just recitation of what I know. It’s a cooperative process. When I’m lecturing in the Thinking Matters course, I don’t allow laptops in my class, so people have to look at me. They can write things down. But I’m not giving out information. It’s a conceptual exercise. I’m really trying to get people to challenge me and question me. And I do that sort of thing because I care. I don’t teach literature as a collection of movements, “okay, now we move to the Augustan age.” Literature is a theater of choices, values, and the way in which one’s character takes shape and in turn shapes one’s life. Those are the questions that literature brings to dramatic life, and, I hope, awakens something in my students. Again, I don’t want to award myself a merit badge. It seems natural enough to want to have a kind of communion with others, challenge other people and have them challenge you. It’s more fun to live that way.

***

TW: If this makes any sense, we’re called to different things, in different ways. By saying that, I guess I’m implying a caller. Nature, if you will, calls us to different kinds of things.

Again, read the whole thing here.


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