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My Lunch With Andrei continued
Codrescu credits his rise to demographics. "What has happened at NPR is that, in 1983 when I started out, I think that listenership was around 2 million people. And it grew by leaps and bounds so that now there are close to 8 or 10 million. It has something to do with the fact that the baby boomers that I'm a part of grew up and they gave up loud rock and roll and they started listening to news and quieter music. I Think NPR grew up with my generation."

Condiment and Metaphor

How many delicacies and staples from the old country have American Jews shucked into history? Borscht, chicken necks, gribines, calf's foot jelly. Andrei Codrescu dives into his plate of sweet and sour cabbage. But his palate is anything but limited. This is the man who uses hot sauce as both condiment and metaphor.

"Multiculturalism, in my mind, is the opportunity to avail yourself of everybody's culture and take from it what you need and play with it as you want, and to ignore the people who guard the borders and proclaim purity," he says. "We just make ourselves richer if we give up our frozen identities and our single-minded empty rituals."

Don't tell that to the Jewish continuity folks. They might say American Jews have been so open to a life that is so comfortable that a way to preserve Judaism has eluded them.

"Well, it is important to remember that we are not out of danger," Codrescu says. "That it is important to maintain the ideal of being Jews, because there are still people who hate Jews. And the world is full of anti-Semites and the Nazis are having a field day all over the place. I don't think we can escape the fact of being Jewish. Being Jewish is not cultural or environmental. It's a matter of being a Jew."

"Art has the courage to look insanity straight in the face and give it back to us in a way that helps us heal."

  More that a Jew, Andrei Codrescu is a liberal arts guy in a MBA age, a storyteller in a society preoccupied with the utilitarian
bottom line.

"Well, that's one of the important and sad things about our world right now," he says. "We're losing our stories. We allow
television to tell our stories for us. Our own individual stories,
the stories of where we come from, who our relatives are, all
those things that used to leisurely be bandied about at family gatherings, all the stories that people would tell you simply by
having a cup of coffee with them, all those stories are
disappearing because we don't have the time for them. And
that's a tragedy, because people without stories are machines."

The waitress returns. "Are you finished now?" We ask for the
check, and then I say, "In your book you wrote, 'Contradictions are tonic; paradox is a kind of purgative; and irony provides scar
tissue. These I call imaginary medicine.' Do you think that drama, thought, or anything, exist without these elements?"

"No, I don't think that true art can exist without the elements of paradox and mystery and all of those things," Codrescu says. "Because those are the surprising things. And the true things.
You can very quickly determine if something is phony or manufactured -- indeed most of the television stories and the real bad movies -- because they seem utterly alien to the way people really are."

"I wonder if many people don't see the contradictions or
paradoxes that we're forced to live with, or accept them," I say.

"Well, most people fear them, because to see the paradox and
the contradiction that most of us live in would be to go insane.
And so we need art, because art has the courage to look
insanity straight in the face and give it back to us in a way that
helps us heal. The truth is that art is quite frightening.

"I don't think art is about decoration," he says. "Quite the
contrary, it's about the most frightening things and about those
things that we couldn't face cold."

The writer is at work now, testing words for their ironic elasticity, even as the fortune cookies arrive.

"If I have any job at all," he says, "it's to put the fear of art back
into people."

He laughs at that and lights a cigarette.


Click here to read a transcript of the interview.

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