I've read the story of Yael and the missionary several times now, and I can never figure out which side is right.
What no one has picked up on is that the Yael story is a version of a Bible story -- the story of Cozbi and Zimri. It's Romeo and Juliet-- Zimri is a Jewish prince who falls in love with Cozbi, who is the daughter of a Midianite priest. And they make a life together. And everything is fine, until they bring their ritual to the Jewish altar, at which point someone called Phineas skewers them at the base of the altar because of what they've done to defile it.
It sounds like one of those stories that pops up in some form in every culture and religion.
Who knows whether there was a real guy named Moses? But for the purpose of the larger myth that ordered society, his was a good story. For the purpose of a social code that puts limits and restraints on people, the Bible serves a purpose.
We need stories. That's what the movies are for, especially the movies that have a lesson.
And we tend to like the kind of stories that teach us how to live.
Right. That's why Star Warsis popular.
That's whyThe Godfather is popular, too. I know people who have based their lives on it.
Yes. It's got a code. But imagine a time when there were no movies. And there's writing, but stories are passed down, and every time you pass it down you revise it, you rewrite it. And then it's all put together in one place. The generation that put it together knows that it put it together. But two or three or 10 generations down the line -- because there's no video, no tape recordings -- what the ancestors had done to put the story of the tribes together is lost, and now the stories come down with the baggage of being divine.
It's interesting that you call that divinity "baggage." These issues of religious stories and their various realities, or their relative divinity, are especially important in the world right now.
I think we've been preached to too much. The world has been preached to too much. So the advantage of fiction -- when it's written the way I think it should be written -- is that it gives you a way to open the possibility of accessing the divine without being preached to.
What do you mean, "the way it should be written"?
There's a Philip K. Dick novel, I can't remember the name of it, but I remember reading it and realizing that in order to understand it, the patterns of thought in your brain have to change. The Sound and the Fury does that, too. The Sound and the Furyreorders your mind. You can't just read it passively; it changes you. To understand it you have to work so hard that when you make the connections there's a physical change in your brain. Since everything the culture gives us is so mindless, and kills the connection in your brain, real art has to find some way to reorder the mind.
For the secular humanist who can't abide religion, that means that there's still some force in life, which expresses itself through some people -- an inspiration that's outside of us. As a writer you become a channel for something you don't understand. I don't think John Ashbery understands his poetry. I don't believe he does. I think he gets a sense of it.
It took me a while to finish Under Radarbecause I didn't understand what I was supposed to do with the stories that I couldn't get around. The more time I lived with it, the more I understood it.
Do you understand it now?
A little bit more than I used to. And that's something I wanted to do, really -- to be able to write something that works without fully understanding it. For me, that's part of the achievement.