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Telling Stories

My interview with Andrei Codrescu lasted about an hour. Thinking back on our meal together, I'm amused by the fact that I took notes on what he had for lunch, but I have absolutely no memory of what I ate. Better, though, I have a recording of what we talked about.

I don't usually record interviews; my exception being those people who are best known for their command of language. Codrescu is exceptional in that he is superfluent in a language that isn't his mother tongue. That's the point I made to open this excerpt of our conversation.
Andrei: I don't know how better I do than anyone else. One of the pieces of advice I give my students is to leave this country, go for five years to another one, learn another language completely, then come back to their language if they want to, because living in another language is really having another point of view on the world. House and maison are not the same thing.

[Entree is served]

I think it's still a mystery to me exactly how I learned the language. I suspect that having to conduct a daily life had something to do with it and the fact that I was 19 years old and I had very urgent things to tell girls. I had to tell them in the only language they knew. Please have some cabbage.

Me: Maybe if you've always been disposed to writing.....

Well, I figured as soon as I learned three words of English I could write a poem. And if there was a girl nearby that I could tell it to then everything was perfect.

One of my favorite parts of the interview came toward the end of the meal, when we began discussing the value of story telling and the function of art. I ended the article "My Lunch With Andrei" quotations from this part of our conversation. Here it is in full.
You talk a lot about telling stories. This is a country and a culture and a generation that's geared toward the productive, the utilitarian.

Well, that’s one of the important and sad things about our world right now. 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 be leisurely bandied about at family gatherings, all the stories that people would tell you by simply 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 a story are machines. And machines, unfortunately, are moving to the center stage of our civilization, while human beings are moving into the margins and becoming servants of machines -- and machines themselves because they have no stories.

Were stories, then, part of the glue that helped society, or kept it running?

Stories are what define us, what keeps us knowing who we are. Stories are those narratives in which we recognize ourselves, in which we recognize that people like us lived before, and that other people we know do foolish things that allow us to tolerate and forgive them. Because we realize that being human is a funny and paradoxical and mysterious thing. Being human is not something that is expected to perform efficiently and put out a certain production quota. Being human is something that contradicts itself an awful lot. And I think that stories put that in perspective for us.

And of course hearing stories how other generations did things is very helpful, and that’s another thing that’s broken down -- the generational continuity. We don’t barely hear the stories of our parents, we certainly don’t hear the stories of our grandparents. We take these people and stick them in little old-age ghettos in Florida and in Arizona, and we don’t benefit from their wisdom. I think that is a cultural emergency.

Waitress: Are you finished now?

Andrei: Yes

Waitress: Do you need anything else? Check?

Me: 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, anything, exist without these elements? Or is it just a particular approach?

No, I don’t think that true art can exist without the elements of paradox and mystery and all of those things. Because those are the suprising 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. You look at them, and you accept them because you’re intellectually lazy, or just plain lazy. But for a story to be true, or for it to be art, there has to be elements of surprise and paradox and mystery and so on.

There’s an awful lot of so-called art that’s just like television and movies, i.e. something facile, manufactured, sewn with white thread and formulaic and patently untrue.

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

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 the 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. You know, I don’t really hold to those people that try to make art seem harmless and, you should really fund the National Endowment for the Arts because look at the nice little things the artists make. I don’t think art is about decoration. I don’t think it’s about making things pretty. Quite the contrary, it’s about the most frightening things and about those things that we couldn’t face cold. But we have art to help us out with those psychic realities. That’s what it’s for and it’s probably the most terrifying thing there is.

If I have any job at all it’s to put the fear of art back into people.

[Laughs. Lights cigarette. Fortune cookies are delivered. Reads]

Friends long absent are coming back to you. All right, that’s nice. I like that.

[Reads fortune] You are one of the people who, quote, goes places in life.

I think we’re both safe now.

I'm thinking about your story of hot sauce -- that this country is better for all the different people who came here. And there also is the danger of splintering apart as well.

Well, the danger of splintering apart has to do with those old demons of xenophobia and racism and fear of strangers of any kind. Because when a group decides to isolate itself for many reasons, one is in self-defense, the other is for perceived dangers to its purity. However, if you joyfully accept the fact that we are having new experiences and eating new foods and thinking new thoughts and hearing words in different languages, then that can’t help but enrich us. But you can’t take out your gun every time you hear Spanish. You can’t just build fences around your house, because then you’ll just be provincial, stupid, and eventually die of intellectual malnutrition. [Laughs].

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