This week on Moyers & Company.
We’re now, you know, in a campaign season where what we’re really watching is not so much political debate, though it’s called that, as we are watching a movie in which candidates are contending to be our protagonist-in-chief.
Reading a poem can be an act of resistance, because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that’s coming at us.
And rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think it could happen. That could be us. What would I do.
Welcome. We haven’t even turned the page on the controversy over contraceptives, health care and religious freedom, when another thorny one comes into play involving personal conscience and public health. A flurry of stories over the past few days caught my eye, just after I had watched a movie that inspires more than passing interest in their subject.
NURSE IN CONTAGION:
Does she have a history of seizures?
MITCH EMHOFF IN CONTAGION:
No, no, no, no.
NURSE IN CONTAGION:
Steven Soderbergh’s recent film Contagion is the most plausible experience of a global pandemic plague you’re likely to see until the real thing strikes. Stark, beautiful in its own terrifying way, and all too believable, the story tracks the swift progress of a deadly airborne virus…from Hong Kong to Minneapolis…Tokyo to London…from a handful of peanuts to a credit card to the cough of strangers on a subway. Rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think, “It could happen. That could be us. What would I do?”
Perhaps because the movie had invaded my head, for several days I kept coming across stories in the news about contagious disease. And the conflict between religious beliefs and immunization. Nothing new here about the basics: All fifty states require some specific vaccinations for kids. Yet all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons – say, for a child with cancer. Almost all of them grant religious exemptions. And 20 states allow exemptions for personal, moral, or other beliefs.
Some parents still fear a link between vaccinations and autism, a possibility science has largely debunked. Some parents just want to be in charge of what’s put into their children’s bodies.
And some parents just don’t trust science, period. So, you can see there are many loopholes. But now seven states are considering legislation to make it even easier for mothers and fathers to spare their children from vaccinations, especially on religious grounds.
In Oregon, according to a story by Jennifer Anderson in The Portland Tribune, the number of kindergartners with religious exemptions is up from 3.7 percent to 5.6 percent in just four years, and continuing to rise. This has public health officials clicking their calculators and keeping their eye on what’s called “herd immunity.” A certain number of any population group needs to have been vaccinated to maintain the ability of the whole population – “the herd” – to resist the spread of a disease. Ms. Anderson offers the example of what in my day was called “the German measles” – rubella. All it takes are five unvaccinated kids in a class of 25 for the herd immunity to break down, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread to younger siblings and to other medically vulnerable people who can’t be vaccinated. If you were traveling to Europe between 2009 and 2011, you may remember warnings about the huge outbreak of measles there – brought on by a “failure to vaccinate susceptible populations.”
Here in the U.S., several recent outbreaks of measles, have been traced to pockets of unvaccinated children in states that allow personal belief exemptions. The Reuters news service reports 13 confirmed cases of measles in central Indiana. Two of them were people who showed up for the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Patriot and Giants fans back east have been alerted. So far, no news is good news.
But this is serious business, made more so by complacency. My generation remembers when measles killed. Killed at as many as 500 people a year before we started vaccinating against them in 1963. My wife and I both lost grandparents in the great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed as many as forty million globally. Our generation was also stalked by small pox, polio, and whooping cough before there were vaccinations. In a country where few remember those diseases, it’s easy to think, “What’s to worry?” But as the movie so forcefully and hauntingly reminds us, the earth is now flat. Seven billion people live on it, and our human herd moves on a conveyer belt of constant mobility, so that a virus can travel as swiftly as a voice from one cell phone to another. When and if a contagion strikes, we can’t count on divine intervention to spare us. That’s when you want a darn good scientist in a research lab. We’ll need all the help we can get from knowledge and her offspring.
For all its many qualities, including some fine acting, “Contagion” was frozen out of the Oscars—not a single nomination. In fact, none of my favorites were nominated. Nonetheless, let’s go to the movies for some insights on our politics today, because when it comes to storytelling, Hollywood and Washington are co-dependents. Political conspiracies, skullduggery, and infighting have long provided solid plotlines for moviemakers. In turn, politicians try to embrace the values that movies depict as the noblest virtues of the American character: selfless courage, patriotism, sincerity and compassion. Both know that movie entertainment informs our image of what leaders should be but at the very same time capably and handily distracts us from certain grim truths.
So we’ve chosen this moment to talk with Neal Gabler, the historian of culture and film who expertly interprets how movies reflect our society and politics. Here in New York, Neal Gabler is an indispensable Saturday night guide to the movies on our flagship public station WNET/Thirteen.
NEAL GABLER on Reel 13:
Welcome to Reel 13. I’m Neal Gabler.
His books include biographies of Walt Disney and the powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, this one An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and my favorite, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He’s back in town after a semester as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Welcome home, Neal.
Thank you very much.
When you say life’s a movie what are you saying?
What I’m saying is that life itself has become an entertainment medium, that we are all actors in, and audience for, an ongoing show, that we have so steeped ourselves in the theatrical arts by watching them and ultimately by assimilating them that we have turned our own lives, and life outside of us, into a movie which we can watch and which we can perform in simultaneously.
I’ll give you one example, you know, if you were to ask a farmer in the 19th century, or even in the 20th century for that matter, ‘Why are you wearing overalls?’ He would have looked at you in complete befuddlement. ‘What do you mean why am I wearing overalls?’
But now we have people who walk down the street wearing cowboy hats from Ralph Lauren or wearing safari outfits from Ralph Lauren. You can, your clothing becomes a costume and you become a role player in some sort of fantasy.
And of course we see this in politics, you know, in spades where politics is a movie. And we’re now, you know, in a campaign season where what we’re really watching is not so much political debate, though it’s called that, as we are watching a movie in which candidates are contending to be our protagonist-in-chief, as I would put it.
Meaning that they, themselves, see the country as a kind of movie and they want to be the hero of the movie because they understand that’s what the American people really are looking for. They want a Clint Eastwood, they want a John Wayne. They want an Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the head of state.
But we wanted heroes in the White House before there were movies. George Washington, hero; Andrew Jackson, hero; Ulysses S. Grant, hero. That was some– that seems to be something inherent in human nature, not in the movies, per se.
I mean, there’s a distinction between real heroes and celebrities who are people on whom we impute a kind of heroism who haven’t really earned it. John Wayne is a perfect example. John Wayne never whenever to war, and yet almost everybody in America regards in as heroic because he played a hero.
So the lust for heroism I don’t think is anything new. That’s a product of human nature possibly, and it’s certainly a tradition in America. But the difference is the nature of heroism, what we define as heroism and the way in which heroism gets framed. We have expectations now of our political leaders.
And the expectations are that our political leaders are going to operate the same way that movie heroes operate, not the traditional war heroes or whatever operate, but that movie heroes operate, and that they’ll essentially slash their way through problems and vanquish them at the end of the presidency, which in this case is the end of the national movie.
It used to be that the first reel contained a villain and the last reel contained a hero. But in politics it’s just the opposite. Very often the hero, who gets elected is a villain by the time he takes office, right?
Well, you know, the election is the greatest movie of all. And when the lights come up on election day and we leave the theater and we say as we did in 2008, as many people said, ‘Boy, this is, what a great day for America that we could actually elect an African American to the presidency and that the slogans of hope and change that you can believe in, all these things are really operative.’ But there’s a sequel. And the sequel is governance. Now, as much as the movie of the election may be powerful and entertaining and even in some cases uplifting, governance is a whole different thing.
So in the end are movies contributing to the paralysis and the frustrations of democracy? Because as you say, the movie is glamorous, governing is not.
Absolutely. In fact I think the– I would even go farther than that. I mean, governance is a very bad movie, it’s a really lousy movie. Elections are a better movie because look at, elections fit into a clean framework of there’s going to be a winner and there’s going to be a loser. It’s essentially a sporting event.
But then, that contest ends and after that we have a whole different set of problems and situations, but there aren’t clear winners and losers. There isn’t the clear framework. There’s not the clear sense of hero and villain as there was during the election as we impute those things onto our candidates. So governance is as I say, is a lousy movie. And we don’t know how to deal with that.
One of my favorite moments in one of the best political movies ever made, The Candidate, Robert Redford–
Ah, wonderful movie.
Remember he runs this race for the– and he’s elected.
He’s selected, tapped as the Democratic candidate in California partly because he’s the son of a former governor, but also because he looks like Robert Redford.
You know, he’s handsome and he’s articulate and he gives the impression of sincerity, all the things that one needs to be elected. But there’s no substance to the campaign whatsoever. And indeed, as the campaign goes on it becomes more and more about aesthetics.
About how one looks, how one appears, where one shows up. I mean, there’s one scene in the movie where he walks down the beach just so he can be photographed for a television commercial and people come up to him and he looks like, boy, he’s so relaxed, he’s in his element. And then we get to the end of the movie. Now, he’s elected and he goes to his political advisor-
MARVIN LUCAS in The Candidate:
Okay, we have about 60 seconds of privacy before they find out we’re here now, so what’s on your mind, Senator?
BILL MCKAY in The Candidate:
I don’t know.
MARVIN LUCAS in The Candidate:
Okay, we got to get out there. See I told you they’d be here.
BILL MCKAY in The Candidate:
Marvin, what do we do now?
MARVIN LUCAS in The Candidate:
Wait a minute, wait a minute, what?
Election’s easy. Governance is hard.
The hero of the campaign becomes a pretty weak figure at the moment of governance, right?
If the campaign is about aesthetics. And that’s what has happened in American politics.
Earlier this week on CNN there was a headline that said, “Will the debate reveal a new Romney?” I mean, a new Romney is the-
A new Romney? Well, here we have another debate and what’s Romney’s role going to be in this debate? How does he project himself? This is all about the narrative that the candidates are presenting to the public. And it’s all about how well they can seduce the public. Now, the public’s wise to this. It’s not like the public is sitting back and they’re stupid. The public gets this. They understand that this is-
So why do we go along? Why do we go along with it?
Well, I think–
Because we– after the election we are so frustrated, democracy’s not working, nothing gets solved. And yet we were party to the movie, we were in the audience applauding when the new Romney emerged.
You know, there’s, I think, a kind of American schizophrenia about our politics. On the one hand we love to sit back and see these people be compelled to seduce us because elections are basically about seduction. And we understand, there’s no fooling us that that’s what the process is. So we sit there and we say, ‘How well are they going to seduce us?’
But that also gives way to an incredible cynicism about the process. Americans are deeply cynical about politics generally. And one of the reasons we’re cynical is because we get it. We get how it works. On the other hand we would have theoretically at our disposal the ability to change American politics, to say, you want to know something? I don’t want to buy the new Romney, or the old Romney, or the new Gingrich, or the old Gingrich, or the new Santorum, or the old Santorum.
I want to know who a candidate really is. I want him to speak honestly and forcefully to me. And I also want to understand policy-wise what choices is he going to make? What interests are we going to– is he going to serve? You know, these are questions that are almost never addressed in a political campaign and yet they’re the fundamental questions of a political campaign.
But let’s go to The Candidate because there is another scene that I remember so well when Robert Redford, the candidate, tries to get his opponent and the media to take the issues seriously.
This is the moment during the debate, if I’m not mistaken–
Where he’s debating his Republican rival, a three-term Republican senator. And he’s saying, ‘Look it, we’ve got to address the issues here. We’re not addressing the issues.’
DEBATE MODERATOR in The Candidate:
Mr. McKay, you now have one minute to sum up. Mr. McKay?
BILL McKAY in The Candidate:
In the begin– I don’t, I think it’s important to note what subjects we haven’t discussed. We completely ignored the fact that this is society divided by fear, hatred, and violence. And until we talk about just what this society really is than I don’t know how we’re going to change it. For example, we haven’t discussed the rot that destroys our cities. We have all the resources we need to check it and we don’t use them. And we haven’t discussed why not. We haven’t discussed race in this country, we haven’t discussed poverty, in short, we haven’t discussed any of the sicknesses that may yet send this country up in flames. And we’d better do it. We’d better get it out in the open and confront it. Before it’s too late.
And his handlers absolutely feel that he’s done the absolutely wrong thing in trying to compel the press to address issues in an aesthetic campaign.
But the difference today would be that there would be a headline that the candidate says, Redford says, ‘America is rotten,’ or, ‘America is sick.’ And everyone would jump on it and then he would be compelled to come before the camera and say, ‘I didn’t say that America was rotten and I didn’t way that America was sick.’
Now, interestingly, we’ve seen Newt Gingrich do a variation on this, and I think it’s fascinating, it’s kind of post-modernist. Because Gingrich is going around saying, that, you know, we don’t talk enough about policy. We really ought to talk about policy. We’re talking about personal things, but we really ought to talk about policy. But in talking about talking about policy, he never talks about policy. He’s simply talking about talking about policy. Now, this is a wonderful trick. It makes him sound as if he really wants to address policy without ever having to do so.
So would Mitt Romney get the role of playing Mitt Romney if there were a movie about which Mitt Romney is going to win?
Well, it depends on which Mitt Romney you want in the movie. I mean, I think what Mitt Romney has done is he’s created the narrative that he is the strong businessman. And he looks the part, and that’s one of the reasons why he can play this role.
On the other hand, that narrative has not played well with the Republican constituency. Because they don’t care whether he’s a strong businessman. What they want to know is, does he have the courage of his convictions which is essentially the courage of their convictions, their conservative convictions.
So Romney’s problem in this campaign is his narrative is the wrong narrative. He’s playing the wrong role. They want to see if he has courage. They don’t want to see that he has the financial acumen to run the economy, they don’t care. And this is a very difficult thing to do. He’s miscast. What makes a great actor? What makes a great actor is the authenticity. You believe in that performance. That’s great acting.
And, what we do is we get a candidate, Gingrich, you know, coming along and saying, ‘Well, I’m authentic because I’m going to– I say what I want to say. I don’t pull my punches.’ And then he gets taken down. Now Santorum is cast in the same way. Why is Santorum being boosted? Because he’s sincere.
You say in here that we escape from life by escaping into a neat narrative formula. Isn’t that true of politics, as well? Movies give us a neat story, a neat drama with a beginning, a middle and an end and we like that even though politics isn’t really like that?
Politics is antithetical really to the values of movies even though the values of movies as I said earlier permeate politics, and that’s a problem. You know, Americans love democracy, but they hate politics. And politics is one of the things that gives us democracy.
I would have thought just the opposite. They love politics, witness the audiences for the debates, witness the enthusiasm of the crowd. But it’s the working of democracy they don’t like.
Well they love the theatricality of politics. But when I say politics I don’t mean the horse race aspect of it. I mean the bargaining, the negotiations, the policy, all of those things which are the essence of real politics and political decision making, Americans hate that and they are cynical about that. They feel it doesn’t work.
And that is not a healthy situation for democracy. What we have to do is embrace the fact that democracy’s a mess. Movies are not, movies are clean. Democracy is a mess. That’s what makes it democracy.
It’s about finding out how interests get resolved, that’s what democracy’s about. Movies aren’t about that. Movies are about vanquishing a villain, that’s what movies are about. And what happens in American politics is that notice how, and we see this in the Republican debate, that idea of vanquishing the villain, in this case Barack Obama, has become the political meme.
It’s not about policy. It’s not about interests. It’s about, there’s this bad guy in the White House and we’ve got to defeat him. That’s Batman. That’s not really the way the political system would operate. And it contributes to polarization.
Have you seen Ides of March with–
Yes, I have, yes.
George Clooney? There’s a moment in there where he talks differently about religion from the way many candidates including Santorum are doing. Let me play that for us.
GOVERNOR MORRIS in The Ides of March:
I am not a Christian, or an atheist. I’m not Jewish or Muslim. What I believe, my religion, is written on a piece of paper called the Constitution. Meaning, that I will defend, until my dying breath, your right to worship, in whatever God you believe in. As long as it doesn’t hurt others. I believe we should be judged as a country by how we take care of the people who cannot take care of themselves. That’s my religion. If you think I’m not religious enough, don’t vote for me. If you think I’m not experienced enough, or tall enough, then don’t vote for me. Because I can’t change that to get elected.
Of course, if anybody had ever said what Clooney says here, and again this is where we get this kind of schizophrenia, we love candidates who are forthright on the movies. We love candidates in the movies who say what they want to say and just rip the cover off the ball and, you know.
But in real life if a candidate ever said that he would have doomed his chances to be elected in a second because the headline would be– and every one of his opponents would say, ‘Doesn’t believe in God. Clooney doesn’t believe in God.’ And then for a week the narrative that week would be him having to come back and def—’I never said I don’t believe in God.’ And you know, this is the kind of idiocy that absolutely overtakes the American political narrative. But this is the only– the only thing we get is idiocy. We get one-
We’re a nation of idiots?
I won’t say we’re a nation of idiots although I will say this– I would never say that of course. Because if I said that-
In a movie you would.
That would– in a movie I would, in a movie, absolutely. Yes.
We’ll do a movie.
But I would say that we allow this kind of thing to happen, we let it happen. And we let the media promulgate this sort of thing and we don’t put our feet down and say, ‘You know, enough, enough.’
And I think we have to shame the public and the media, shame them, into saying, ‘Look, as a citizen this is your responsibility. It’s not your responsibility to watch, you know, woodpeckers in a debate, you know, knock one another’s heads. That’s entertaining and it’s fun and all of that, but now you have a duty. You have a responsibility.’
We’ve got an Occupy Wall Street movement. We now need an Occupy Media movement in which, you know, ordinary people say, ‘I want a real debate on issues.’ And find the resources to do that.
But in a society so thoroughly saturated with entertainment, aren’t we losing our capacity for the sustained or more serious ideas?
We are losing our idealism. We are losing our ability to process these things. We outsource our opinions. I mean, when you look at Fox News and MSNBC for example, and they’re not the only culprits, what do they really represent? I mean, people always say, ‘Well, they’re, they market to a niche.’ But what they really represent is outsourcing our own opinions.
Yeah, we don’t have to think. We can outsource it to Fox. We kind of agree with them generally, we kind of generally agree with MSNBC, so now we’ve outsourced it. They’ll do it for us.
So in some ways in this media saturated, entertainment saturated culture what we have to do, it’s imperative for us to do this, is disenchant ourselves, get ourselves out of the movie, leave the theater for a moment and say, what is the real impact?
When we get into the cold light of the sidewalk after the movie is over, what is the impact of all this? What is it going to mean for my life? What is it going to mean for America? And if we don’t start asking those questions we can’t move this forward at all. All we’re going to get is punditry and analysis of who’s winning and who’s losing and a movie. We’ll get nothing but the movie. But the problem is movies don’t answer the pressing questions of America. Policy answers the pressing questions of America and we have to demand to know what these guys are going to do and what choices they’re going to make.
Neal Gabler, we’ll continue this conversation as the year goes on. Thank you for joining me.
Thank you so much, Bill.
You may have seen the evangelist Franklin Graham on MSNBC a few days ago saying he’s not sure if President Obama is a Christian or a Muslim. Or maybe you saw Republican Rick Santorum calling Obama’s agenda some phony theology, not a theology based on the “Bible.” Here we go again.
When religion is used as a bludgeon. When political campaigns duke it out over religious beliefs, descending to strident partisan shouts of holier than thou, it’s hard to remember that true faith and reason still can be part of what it means to be human. Often, it is the words and ideas of our poets that remind us. One of them, William Carlos Williams wrote:
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
Today, a kindred spirit finds in poetry a way to face death with a graceful equanimity built on faith. A native of West Texas, Christian Wiman has published three critically acclaimed volumes of poetry including this most recent, Every Riven Thing. And a collection of personal and critical essays,” Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.” He’s the editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English speaking world. This year, Poetry magazine marks its 100th anniversary.
Of late, Wiman’s poetry has been informed by several transformative experiences, including the diagnosis of a rare and incurable blood cancer, six years ago on his 39th birthday.
Christian Wiman, welcome.
Thanks so much for having me, Bill.
One critic, who praises your new book of poetry, Every Riven Thing, says we are a God-hungry nation. “Politicians,” he says, “know it. And it just might be time for poets to know it.” But don’t poets know it? I mean, some of our most powerful inner emotions rise from poetry?
Oh, yeah, and I think, I think poets do know it. I think poetry has always done that. I think it’s a grave mistake for poets to give up on belief altogether, to give up on faith altogether. I don’t know many who do.
Why have you been writing so much about religion?
It’s interesting. You know, I went for a long time without being able to write, and I’d devoted my life to poetry and I felt that was my call. And it went away for a long time, for a number of years, I was sort of in the desert and in despair. And I had three things that happened to me in quick succession. And one was that I fell in love with the woman who’s now my wife and that sort of caused the world that – it had seemed to go dead for me — it caused it all to come alive. And shortly after that I started writing again. And about the same time that that happened, I got a terrible diagnosis of an incurable cancer, which I’ve been living for a number of years, but has been at times really rough. My wife and I when we fell in love, we found ourselves saying prayers occasionally. And both of us were from religious backgrounds, but had fallen away, me much further than she. Once the diagnosis hit we needed some more formal way of living that faith. And of feeling it. And we found ourselves going to a church around the corner. It just happened to be at the end of our block.
In Chicago, small church, nondescript, and they happened to have this wonderful preacher. And he and I became friends. We would just talk. You know, he’s much more orthodox than I am. He’s a person of much clearer faith than I am. I feel like I’m very confused and in my faith. But we just talked. And we argued and I would say those discussion lightened things for me so utterly. And made me feel close to God in a way that nothing else has.
After your diagnosis, you went back to West Texas where you’d grown up, right? Is West Texas still the country of your heart?
Absolutely. It’s the place that I return to in my imagination. And I find that nothing will take fire, except that landscape. Well, in places, it’s just completely flat, so that you see all the way to the horizon. It’s like the sky becomes this huge eye that’s over you, just ’cause it takes on a curve from horizon to horizon. In other places, it’s ranch land, and so it’s cattle country. And so there are scrubs, scrub cedar and mesquite trees. And so it’s incredibly rugged. The wind blows. We used to have these tremendous sand storms, where everything would just go dark.
Well, the people you grew up within West Texas are in these poems in a very powerful way. You have described life for them “was a battering ram the Lord used to shatter men’s hearts.”
My mother’s father killed my mother’s mother, in front of her, when she was 14 years old, in front of her two brothers, as well. And then killed himself, when they all ran out of the room. And so I grew up with that as well, images of this extreme violence. I think an act like that has certainly, you know, ramified through the years, in her own life. And it continues to echo in other lives for a long time, when something like that happens in a family, it just, it has a long tail.
But interestingly, my closest relationship I hadn’t thought of this ’til right now, but my closest relationship was with my grandmother. She represented a kind of consciousness to me that is not found in, has not gotten from books. It’s not intellectual. She was simply in her world so utterly and knew her world so utterly, every flower, every kind of grass that was out there in the yard, every kind of insect, every bird, I mean, utterly, she knew it. And she seemed to me to have a kind of existence that was in some ways exemplary.
In fact, let me read a new poem. This was written, this was the last poem I wrote. And I wrote it in the hospital, before the chemo, I wrote it in one day. And then the chemo the next day obliterated me. And so I had this one window when this poem was given to me. And I wrote this. And this returns to Texas an image from my childhood. It doesn’t have a title. It’s untitled.
and grief is all
and the long fall
back to earliest
but in one’s brain.
“From the hard-
a dark ardor
“of angry bees
“the trees and block
his way home.
“I like to hold him
“under what survives
“I learned too late
how to live.
“Child, teach me
how to die.”
Who are you addressing there?
The child that I was. The child that I was. I think, well that first line says it all. “Love’s last / urgency / is earth.” I think there’s a notion that when you’re sick, when you’re in danger of dying, that you want to get beyond. You know, you would think you want experience that takes you beyond the earth. You want some sense of an afterlife or, you know, something some sense of a beyond.
But my experience has been just the opposite that when you feel threatened, what, in fact, you want is the earth. You want, you want concreteness. And that’s what, that’s what rescues you. And I think we talk too much about how poetry can get to the edge of the sayable, can take us back and take us beyond what can be said. I love poetry, because it gives me the concrete. It gives me concrete experience and it helps me to understand my experience.
So you fell in love, the diagnosis, and what was the third thing?
I started writing again. I started writing again.
After the diagnosis, after falling in love?
Yes. And I started writing poems again. But somewhere along in there, it became clear to me, I think you know, you don’t come to faith. It can’t just be a sort of, it’s not just an accoutrement to your life. It’s not an appendage to your life. If you open yourself up to faith there’s every possibility that it will change your life radically.
And one of the changes that it asked of me was that I change what I was writing. And so I wrote a whole prose book, which is coming out in a year. That book is wrestling with what it means to be a believer at this time, in this culture.
There was a marvelous essay in The New York Times by Eric Weiner, whose most recent book is Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.
He says Americans are undecided about God. He says, “We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone … who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious … [T]his new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive … [It would] celebrate doubt, encourage experimentation, and allow one to utter the word God without embarrassment.” (Sic) And I must say, I thought he was describing you.
I do think he’s really onto something in suggesting that we need a new language for belief. That people find the old language inadequate. And that in some way we need to find new language that articulates this urge that’s in us. It’s in all of us, too. And I think poets are actually at the forefront of this. That they are finding it. That they are finding ways of articulating what we all feel.
The critic, Clive James, an Australian living in London now. He was on one of my earlier broadcasts. And we talked about the subject you and I are discussing, God. Let me play for you something he said.
What kind of God would you have reinvent Western civilization?
Well, I wouldn’t. Because God didn’t invent it in the first place. And this doesn’t make me an atheist. I don’t want to be defined as an atheist anymore as I want to be defined as someone who drinks water.
To me, to me the fact there is no heavenly power that intervenes has been obvious since I was a kid. If there had been it would have brought my father home. If there had been a heavenly power that could intervene that power would have saved the children from the death camps. One and a half million children were being exterminated for no reason at all when I was their age. I never got over it. I still haven’t got over it.
Of course, there’s no heavenly force that intervenes. But on the other hand, there is a religious sense. I think that all the arts and everything to do with them are heavenly order. I experience them as a heavenly order.
Clive is projecting a human God. And so he’s angry at the God for allowing these things to happen. But that is a projection. That is a humanized notion of what God is. And I think we have to get beyond that. I do think that Clive is, I mean, I’m sympathetic to what he says. I think he is objecting to the notion, the traditional notions of God, which I think we have to do. And he does recognize the sacred nature of art or the sacred nature of people’s experience.
Why does that appeal to you?
One of the ways in which I feel close to God is writing poetry, even when it has nothing to do with God. There is something in the nature of artistic creation, I think Clive was putting his finger on it. Wherein you become, well, it’s an ancient notion. You become a vessel for the Gods, they thought. And I think something speaks through us. I mean, you know, contemporary psychologists might say it’s you know, you’re just neurological. It’s you know, that’s–
The God spot that–
God spot, which neurologists are calling this experience of the filter between our brain and the world just sort of disappearing. And you’re at quote “one with the universe.”
Well, I think that’s why creation is at once this tremendous elation and also a grief afterwards.
Yeah, I think you are filled and then you’re not. And a poet is someone who has to exist between those moments. And between those moments, you don’t feel like a poet, you know? You don’t, it’s been two months since I’ve written a poem and I don’t feel at all like a poet. It goes away, you know? You’re just a person going about your life like anyone else. And the gift seems not yours. It seems on loan. Whereas with prose, you can do that any time. You can crank that out.
Welcome to journalism. Yeah, well, you describe moments in life when and I’m quoting you directly here, “It is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if we ourselves, as if we ourselves were being perceived.” What were some of those moments for you?
Certainly falling in love. I, it was as if the world just looked back at me. And it was a mysterious, mystical experience for some time. And there have been other instances. There have been instances of grief, of great grief. Around my diagnosis, because they happened so soon after we fell in love. We had not even been married a year, when I was diagnosed. And there were moments around then when that the suffering made possible that, when it seemed like the world was looking back at me. It was just lit, just radiant.
Simone Weil says that you can’t have a supernatural experience of suffering until you’ve had a supernatural experience of joy. And I don’t know if that’s true, but it was true to my own experience. And during that time, when I fell in love with my wife, in that time afterward, it was as if reality was just over brimming its boundaries. And I needed to thank somebody. There was so much excess energy, so much excess, so much joy. I needed to I needed to praise it. And so I needed to pray.
Do the words omnipotent, eternal, omniscient say anything to you about God?
No, I don’t think we can even know what those words mean. They’re just, all we can think of is, if you think of power, you can only think of human power. And so something that’s all powerful, it just means they have all the power that we can imagine. It’s meaningless. Those are meaningless words.
This is called Lord of Having.
“Lord of having
hell at hand
Lord of losing
what I have
this heaven now
“may I move
like a cloud
my torn form
“may my suffering be
as of water
in some reach
it would take
“and may my hands
the very nub
of my tongue
out of this hour
if I should utter
the dirty word
The dirty word?
Yeah, I don’t want to think about eternity. It’s like the eternal and omniscient. It’s one of those words that has no meaning. My imagination just goes dead when I think of the word eternity. And I think we have to think of now. We have to live in time and deal with time. And so I don’t want to, I don’t think of, I don’t think of my life as, I don’t think of eternity.
When you stopped writing, and this was before you fell in love, when you stopped writing, was it in any way connected to a crisis of faith?
I think in retrospect, it certainly was a crisis of faith. I think I mean, a crisis of faith is the only crisis there is. We’re always having it. Everyone’s always having it. We mistake it for other things. ‘It’s a crisis of my job. It’s a crisis of my marriage. It’s a crisis of this.’
I think it’s always a crisis of how are we relating to our ultimate concern? If life is messing up, it’s messing up, because we are somehow out of whack with our ultimate concerns. There may be things that we’ve got to take care of, there often are. But that’s, you can’t fix your life, if the ground of your being is messed up. If the ground of your being is unsure, then your life will always be unsure.
It sounds to me as if this is what you mean, when you write, “Two or three times every expression of faith is provisional.”
I think so, because I may speak constantly about faith, but I’ll fall away the minute I walk out of here. You know, I think we are condemned to express things provisionally, to live in contingency. And I think that’s just, that’s just the way it is. That’s why I’m so moved by Christ, the notion of Christ, the incarnation, because that is an intrusion of God into reality, into the contingent nature of our lives.
“All reality,” you wrote, “is the expression of God.” Including sorrow. That is very powerful in your experience, is it not?
It is, I do believe that there is something in Christianity that makes suffering sacred. It does give a meaning to suffering, even when we can’t understand it. I don’t claim to have been good about this. I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital in the last year, and there have been times when I’ve been in complete despair. And have felt faith fall away.
Well, again, Simone Weil comes to mind. She says that you know, the greatness of Christianity is not that it gives you a remedy for suffering, and I must say I’ve never felt a remedy, a religious remedy from suffering or for suffering. It’s not that it gives you a remedy for it, but it gives a use for it. It puts suffering in a place. It gives a pattern. The complete consort dancing together as Elliot put it, it makes suffering part of the meaning of your life. And not this meaningless thing that destroys us. We go through life and suddenly we’re destroyed by suffering. You know, all life becomes is just a way to avoid suffering. And I think Christianity gives meaning to it.
Perhaps this is what poet, why poetry and religious sentiment are so powerful together. That poetry is the intensity of our experience here.
And we live for these moments of intensity, you know? When we think of our memories, it’s moments of intensity. Whether they were sorrowful or happy, moments of great loneliness or moments of great communion. We live for these moments in our life. And I do think poetry that is a way of, it’s a way of recognizing the moments, first of all, in your life. But also a way of preserving them.
So this intensity visited you when you fell in love. You felt it again, when you had a diagnosis. Tell me about that. What was the disease?
It’s called Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia. And there have been complications after that. So I have something, additional things now. But it’s a very rare cancer. It is in the bone marrow, primarily. But also it’s everywhere in your body. And it is completely unpredictable. Some people die quickly, some people live 30 years with it. And it doesn’t even change. It doesn’t even do anything in their bodies.
But you were told, if I understand it, that you could die very soon.
It looked like it at the beginning. And I’ve had two– I’ve had a bone marrow transplant. So I have been on the verge of dying a couple of times. So it’s been very difficult. I think less so being close to death than being in great pain. I think being in great pain, and I’m talking really serious pain, islands you from everybody. It takes you away from everybody.
You wrote this essay in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin for the Winter/Spring of 2012. And you describe this pain and this experience. Would you read that?
Sure. “Six years have passed since I wrote the first words of these notes. I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die; joints lock in my face and arms and legs so that I could not eat, could not walk; cancer pack[ed] my marrow to the point that it began to expand excruciatingly inside my bones. I … filled my body with mouse antibodies, small molecules, chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been islanded even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury.”
What sustained you through all that?
Oh, I think my family sustained me through it. And I think that faith does sustain me. You know, my sense of faith is often not counter to the man in that article that you were talking about earlier, or counter to Alfred North Whitehead, actually, whom he quotes. He’s saying that religion is what we do in our solitariness. I do not think that’s true. I think we have those solitary experiences of the divine, but that’s not religion.
Religion is everything after those moments of solitude. One thing that sustained me is not those solitary moments, which I found conducive to despair. What sustained me was the company of other people who believe. And I was able to talk to them and to take comfort from them. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own. Now you don’t have to be a Christian for that, to understand what that means. You’ve got to have other people. And you need other people to sustain yourself and to sustain your faith.
You wrote this poem that is particularly — I think seems particularly pertinent right there in “Every Riven Thing.”
I wrote this poem, after the diagnosis, after we had gone back to church.
“God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself;
under the tree, a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see.
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”
I suspect that’s one that Clive James hates.
He says this is a favorable time for poetry, when everything is against it. What do you think he means that it’s, everything is against it, therefore it’s a favorable time?
Well, I think what he must mean is that everything seems to be aligned against the kind of inner life that poetry requires, against the kind of consciousness that poetry requires. And the world seems to be going faster and faster, and our attention seems to be more and more fragmented on these various, in various ways. And threatening the inner life. And what I would say is that poetry is a bulwark against these things. That I think people will realize, in the midst of all this, that they need some way of putting up resistance to it. And reading a poem can be an act of resistance, because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that’s coming at us.
So what’s the prognosis for you?
Well, I just had a bone marrow transplant, so I just have to wait and see. There’s no, there’s no way to know. You just wait and see now.
But you write, “I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening shadow of death.”
I feel death around me all the time. And I, my wife doesn’t like this poem I read, “Love’s last / urgency / is earth,” because I say, “teach me / how to die.” At the time, it seemed like I was going to die. I felt it very present, but I don’t think, I think of learning how to die is a long process. And I don’t think of this as somehow a swan song. So you know, I expect to be around.
To which many of us would say, amen.
Oh, thanks, Bill, thanks.
Thanks for being with us.
Thanks so much for having me.
That’s all for this week. We’re starting a pledge period on public television, so for the next two or three weeks we’ll be preempted on some stations. But you can always watch us online at BillMoyers.com. You’ll also find there more clips from Hollywood movies that depict the odd ways of American politicians.
There’s also more poetry from Christian Wiman, and links to help separate fact from fiction in the vaccination debate.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. See you there and see you here next time.
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